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Festival Season Special: How do we stop deaths at festivals?

By criminal lawyer Joseph Harb. Mr Harb is a specialist drug lawyer whose results include securing non-convictions for supply of 560 ecstasy tablets and possession of 88 ecstasy tablets at festivals in Sydney.

This article is written on the pretence that police cannot prosecute young people to the point that drug taking is eradicated from society, just as American prohibition in the 1920s did not stop adults from drinking.

Spring is here and with it comes to beginning of music festival season. Sadly, NSW seems destined to continue with policies, centred around policing, that aim to stop the drug-related deaths at Festivals. Unfortunately, these policies have failed in the past and will fail again.

The debate, however, seems to be changing direction. If recent leaks are correct, the law-and-order lobby is on a collision course with the NSW Coroner, who is overseeing an Inquest into the spate of deaths at music festivals in recent years.

The main drug under the spotlight at the coronial inquest is MDMA. The six deaths that the inquest is focused on involve young people who died as a result of MDMA toxicity or complications resulting from MDMA use.

The Coroner, who has yet to release her final recommendations following an Inquest earlier in 2019, has been particularly critical of the police use of sniffer dogs and the perceived threat of indiscriminate searches, which she says make people take drugs in dangerous ways, such as “double dosing, pre-loading, swallowing drugs and insertion in a vaginal or anal cavity”.

It is anticipated that the Coroner will recommend that the NSW Government orders police to stop using searches and sniffer dogs against festivalgoers except where they have clear evidence the target is a drug dealer.

The quality of medical care at festivals has also come under fire at the Coronial Inquest. EMS Event Medical (EMS) was formed, according to its website, “in an effort to meet the growing demand for professional quality event medical services”.

Hands shaped as heart, raised at festival


EMS provided medical care at Defqon.1, where two of the festival deaths (Joseph Pham and Diana Nguyen) occurred. The company contracted two doctors to work at the 30,000-person event. Emergency medicine specialist, Associate Professor Anna Holdgate, prepared an independent expert report for the Coroner. She described Joseph’s treatment as “poorly co-ordinated and indecisive” and Diana’s treatment as “disorganised, delayed and incomplete, and further reduced her chance of survival”.

The Coronial Inquest revealed that the two doctors at Defqon.1 were carrying only one dose of succinylcholine and one of rocuronium, medications that assist with patient intubation. One was a junior doctor who had never performed unsupervised intubation in an emergency setting.

At Lost Paradise, where another festival death occurred, EMS were similarly unprepared with only one doctor, a general practitioner, contracted to provide critical care at the 11,000-person festival. He told the inquest he was “not at all” equipped to treat adverse reactions to drugs or perform emergency medical procedures.

It is anticipated that the Coroner will recommend a greater medical presence at future festivals to ensure better medical care for festivalgoers.

The Coroner is also expected to recommend the roll-out of pill-testing at festivals, which until recently has been where much of the debate about festival safety has focused.

Pill-testing involves festivalgoers having the option, upon arriving at festivals, to have their drugs tested for harmful substances and potentially lethal doses. These services have been utilised successfully in European nations for decades and the European Union has produced best practice guidelines.

Dr. David Caldicott, senior lecturer in the Faculty of Medicine at the Australian National University, said that pill-testing services lead people to “change their behaviour at the point of consumption. If you do it over a prolonged period of time at the same event, we find that the attitude toward drugs change,” he added.

In April the ACT government trialled pill testing at the Groovin The Moo festival in Canberra. Organisers said it potentially saved seven lives.

Pill testing is opposed by the police and NSW premier, Gladys Berejiklian, but the Greens MP Cate Faehrmann has said that the coroner’s findings should change their minds (as reported in The Guardian).

Night at the music festival


What the premier will have before her is mounting evidence of the effectiveness of pill testing in reducing deaths from overdoses at music festivals,” Faehrmann said. “If we have the coronial inquest recommending pill testing as a way to save lives and the premier doesn’t have the courage to implement pill testing, then I think she has to wear what happens over the summer frankly.”

Ms Faehrmann said pill-testing bodies were “ready to go” and could implement testing once the government gave the green light. “The government can’t say it is too expensive or too complicated. [Pill-testing operators] are ready to go. They have told the government they are ready to go. They have all the facilities and experts ready to establish services at various music festivals if the government wants to trial pill testing.”

Former Director of Public Prosecutions in NSW, Nicholas Cowdery, QC, has gone a step further. He has urged the NSW Government to decriminalise drug use, telling the Sydney Morning Herald this week that “The only rational way we can remove criminal profits and reduce harm to those involved with drugs is to take over the market at government level: to legislate, regulate, control and tax the whole process of growth, manufacture, distribution and use.”

A spokeswoman for the NSW coroner’s court said: “The findings will be handed down on 8 November 2019. The recommendations have not been finalised.”


Click below to read other articles in our festival season special:

Caught with drugs at a festival? Here’s what to do

NYE 1999 – The Year When Police Praised Ecstasy Users

Why are more people dying at festivals?

The law: Possessing prohibited drugs

The law: Supply prohibited drug

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